What can we learn from classifieds web sites? Are there some features, strategies that could apply to online news media? On Google.fr, one of the most searched terms is "Le bon coin" (the good spot). (1Leboncoin.fr, is a free classifieds site that ranks n°7 on the French market. It generates stunning monthly numbers:

  • 4bn page views (a big news site makes between 100-300m pages views)

  • 9.4m unique visitors

  • 1:10 hour spent per visitor (vs. 16-20 minutes for online newspapers)

  • 38 pages views per visitor

  • for each visit, a viewer will look at 37 pages, and will stay 16 minutes on the site

  • every single day, 300,000 new classifieds are posted by 200,000 users

  • in a single month, more than 2m people will place a classified ad.

  • the site carries an inventory of 9.5m classifieds (vs. 0.8m for ebay.fr).

All of this has been achieved in three years and by a team of 15. Leboncoin is part of a European strategy developed by the Norwegian media group Schibsted ASA: it started with Blocket in Sweden, and expanded to Segundamano in Spain, Subito in Italy, and more recently Custo Justo in Portugal. In France, Leboncoin is a co-owned with Spir Communication (2).

After a careful look at this business and lengthy discussions with Leboncoin's general manager's Olivier Aizac, here are some ideas worth considering for news sites.

1 - Simplicity. All these free classifieds websites share the same concept of a bare-bones interface: a map of the country divided by region. Unlike eBay where you pay first, then struggle to retrieve your item, here, you are strongly encouraged to deal in person; hence the local and sometimes hyper-local approach. The search mode has proved its efficiency: you select region, postal code, 40 categories, and price. One sign such clarity is key: eBay copied it for its classifieds  business.

2 - Confidence in the concept. In other words: "our brand, our users".  When free classifieds took off, so-called "meta search engines" appeared. Like Google News for the news, meta engines aggregate classifieds from other sites, make them accessible through a good search interface and send traffic back to the original sites. In the process, they make lots of money thanks to Google text-ads. In France, one of the biggest such meta engines is Yakaz: it carries about 3.3m classifieds from a thousand sites. This fast growing site is well served by a remarkable search interface (Leboncoin's search is weaker: it generates lots of noise, i.e. unwanted ads).  "We quickly decided that we’d be better off building our own traffic”, explains Leboncoin’s Olivier Aizac, 35. “We prevented Yakaz and the like to crawl our site. These guys built their brands on the back of others. In the beginning, they send traffic back to you, for free. Then, once you’re hooked, they propose to charge you by the click for the traffic they funnel back to you. We believe it is not in our best interest to help them since we might end up competing head-to-head".  This has to be compared to the way publishers attempt to manage their relationship with Google. These publishers keep trying a wobbly dual (neither completely for or against) strategy directed at aggregators: see a previous Monday Note, The misdirected revolt of the dinosaurs.

3 - Exclusive, proprietary value proposition. "We spend a great deal of our brain cycles thinking in terms of what is really exclusive to our concept, and how to keep it that way", says Aizac, who is a business school graduate and an avid news consumer. He believes that online newspapers haven’t worked enough to develop and display their uniqueness. (To a large extent, he’s right: under the pretense of adhering to established "users habits" and "navigational codes", news sites do not look for differentiation, their structures are too much alike).

4 - It's the software, stupid. Leboncoin serves 150m page views per day, roughly 2000 pages per second. That's about 30 times the rate of a news site. Despite these numbers, leboncoin is lightning fast. Its software is written is C language, much faster than PHP for instance, but more complicated to write and maintain. "Media have a content approach, say Aizac, we have a software one". He suggests that news medias remain in some kind of post-Gutenberg thinking and that they need to reframe their view by being much more software driven. (I can't agree more: medias should bring in more software engineers, search, language and data-mining specialists, the ROI is guaranteed).

5 - Free… with paid-for options. Here is an interesting bit. On each euro leboncoin makes (for 2009 revenue, expect a triple digit growth on last year's 5.5m€, says Aizac), about 40% comes from advertising (Google ads and banners); 20% from services to professionals (real estate brokers who post listings of properties); and another 40% from paid-for options. The idea: people who sell their stuff have different needs. Some are in a hurry and want to quickly unload their items; others face serious competition on their local market (used cars, for instance);  some must move large inventories. For each, there is a service, priced from €1.50 to €4.00. These services keep a classified at the very top of a page, or allow it to be modified at will, to be labeled it as "urgent" (usually pointing to good bargains), etc. Leboncoin's development staff spends time fine-tuning such options. The idea is to increase the number of sellers who see it’s in their interest to pay for these services. "Between advertising and paid-for options, we don't know what will be mix in the end”, says Leboncoin's boss. “But we are going to test everything: new options, pricing, efficiency".
In our discussion, Aizac suggested that online news sites should consider the same approach: a free basic service supplemented by a vast array of low-price, paid-for services targeted to the heaviest, most hurried, or semi-pro users. It is all about testing & learning. Something that big medias are still woefully shy of.


(1): It ranks n°9 after Facebook, You Tube, Jeux (Games), You, Yahoo, TV, Orange, and Meteo (weather forecast). Leboncoin is also the third fastest growing search term for 2009(A question in passing: Who is dumb enough to search for Facebook on Google?)

(2): Schibsted also co-owns with Spir the free daily 20 Minutes which I edited between 2002 and 2007. Then I've been working for Schibsted International over the last two years. --

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